'Out in the Ring' — documentary's takedown on the history and future of LGBTQ pro wrestlers

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday November 7, 2023
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Sonny Kiss in 'Out in the Ring'
Sonny Kiss in 'Out in the Ring'

Despite its early roots that include gay men, the world of professional wrestling has a history of homophobia, sex scandals and fumbled attempts at inclusion. In the small newer leagues, however, a new more inclusive roster includes an expanding number of LGBT wrestlers and event producers.

"Wrestlers are artists. It's about choreography and timing and acting. It's all these art forms in one," says Scott "Sgt. Dickson" McEwan in the intro to Ry Levey's fascinating "Out in the Ring," a 2022 documentary about LGBTQ people in professional wrestling. The film, which has won a few festival awards, also offers an exploration and complete deconstruction of the homoerotic nature of pro wrestling in the larger arenas.

Along with a multitude of historic clips, Levey's film includes interviews with several current performers, from the giant Mike Parrow to the petite yet powerful Sonny Kiss.

Professional wrestling has long been steeped in "homoerotiphobia" (my term), a confusing mix of the homoerotic and the homophobic, as the film proves. Wrestler Reiza Clarke compares the similarities of some overtly glamorous characters in wrestling to the Black ball culture.

Bay Area drag personality Pollo del Mar, aka Paul E. Pratt, is one of several participants who eloquently defines the queer cues in pro wrestling, as he MCs wrestling events as Pollo. Citing flamboyant '80s wrestler Ric Flair, he says, "It's how he gets to the ring, the character he presents. For me, a huge element of that is in drag; a character that brings out the larger than life aspect of who the individual is. Homosexual or gay themes have always thrived in professional wrestling."

Queer wrestler and event producer Billy Dixon notes how the growing presence of out wrestlers defies the mostly straight industry. "We are a complete and total confrontation of the homoerotic nature of the industry."

"Gorgeous George" Wagner  

Early queer roots
The film brings life to an illustrious legacy. In one section, Jordan Marques explains the Mexican "exoticos,' flamboyant professional wrestlers who became popular decades ago. "They might be comedy filler, but once the bell rings, they're actual wrestlers," he says.

The film shows how an American actually started the exoticos trend in the 1940s. Dizzy Davis wrestled under the name Gardenia Davis. His friend George Wagner asked if he wanted to bring his act in America, but Davis didn't think it would work. So Wagner borrowed the style and became Gorgeous George, the first flamboyant and historically significant gay-presenting wrestler in the U.S.

The film includes footage of Gorgeous George and dozens of other historic video clips from that era to the 1980s at the height of WWF/WWE popularity (The World Wrestling Federation changed its acronym and after a lawsuit from the earlier-created World Wildlife Foundation).

American pro wrestling's early promoters were gay men. Jim Barnett is called "the Truman Capote of pro wrestling" by announcer Jim Ross in an audio interview. "Think about it. He was an openly gay man in an alpha male world of professional heterosexual wrestling."

Pat Patterson and Louie Dondero  

Pat Patterson, a wrestler from the 1960s, later produced events that grew into the WWF. Despite his boyfriend Louie Dondero acting as his ring assistant, their relationship remained hidden except for a few close friends. Patterson became the North American heavyweight champion despite living in an era when homosexuality was illegal.

After being separated for a while due to their careers, Patterson asked Dondero to move to Portland with him, where they began expanding their burgeoning pro wrestling franchise. Their tours were part of the 1960s San Francisco pro wrestling scene for years while they were living a private relationship among wrestling circles. Patterson went on to developing the pro wrestling world to much bigger televised events.

Chris Colt and Ron Dupree's duo act, The Hells Angels  

Created characters, real lives
In later years, Chris Colt, openly gay in the business, stood out in the 1960s and '70s, and paired up with Ron Dupree in and out of the ring, first as the duo The Hells Angels.

"They were playing ultra macho biker Hells Angels and they were a gay couple," says historian Greg Oliver. After Dupree's death after a heart attack in the ring, Colt became extreme in his character and personal life, eventually being driven out of the business, and died at age 49.

Susan "Tex" Green in 'Out in the Ring'  

Susan "Tex" Green is interviewed in a section that focuses on women in wrestling, in particular the franchise run by The Fabulous Moolah. "As soon as I started with her, I kept everything under lock and key," she says.

Sandy Parker, the first Black lesbian pro wrestler, was notable for her athleticism, as historian Oliver notes. "She brought something different to the ring. She was athletic, she had a lot of speed, and she found a little niche for herself."

Sandy Parker and Susan "Tex" Green in their early wrestling days  

But Moolah's racist casting policy impeded Parker's success until she paired her up with Green. Despite their close relationship in the ring, the two didn't come out to each other until one night in Hong Kong on tour where they both ended up in the same bar.

Moolah eventually found out that Green was dating another female wrestler and forced her out of the league. Moolah herself was a controversial figure, accused of pimping out her women wrestlers for male promoters.

Inspiration and scandals
Pratt discusses his early crushes as a kid, including Austin Idol, the muscular blond 'face' flamboyant wrestler. Says Oliver of Idol, "He showed that you could be really tough but also really effeminate. One of the reasons that he could get away with it is that he was a legitimate bare knuckles brawler."

The early 1990s WWF sex scandal is also covered, including a smear campaign against Pat Patterson and others. But Murray Hodgson, a fired announcer who made the accusations, eventually quit the business after his lawsuit was dismissed.

Goldust licks an opponent.  

With the WWE renamed, it became more of a spectacle of pyrotechnics and heightened sexuality, chair-slamming and cage matches. This was the era of Steve Austin, The Rock and other superstars. Among them, Goldust (Dustin Reynolds) took drag to a new level of gold-painted glamour. Observes Pratt, "If you're going to use this to gain heat, then everybody should be uncomfortable with it."

But for some, Goldust's act went too far. Vintage footage shows the announcers calling him "twisted, perverted and sick" as he humps an opponent. Pratt notes how the Goldust character played into the predatory stereotype of homosexuals as targeting the straight wrestlers.

As the '90s continued, more gay-seeming characters appeared in the ring, including Chuck and Billy, a duo team that actually enacted a wedding proposal in the ring, only to later reveal that it was a mere publicity stunt. Wrestling journalist Wade Keller notes, "It didn't have any believability, so it felt like a cheap stunt. It was so clumsily done that it didn't show any respect for gay characters in wrestling."

The charades continued, as bisexual wrestler Kaitlin Diemond comments on a lurid WWE episode. "'Here are some lesbians!'" she says. "I mean, what is this crap? It's not a real representation of lesbians."

Mike Parrow in 'Out in the Ring'  

Tragic falls
As TV shows and movies began adding gay characters, pro wrestling remained inept at handling queer performers.

Chris Kanyon rose through the ranks to a brief career in the WCW. He soon after came out, but was convinced to dress up as Boy George in a match and endure a violent on-air assault. The message was clear, said Kanyon in a video from the Howard Stern Show. "If you come out as gay, they're going to kick the living shit out of you." Canyon committed suicide in 2010.

Chyna, the first woman to wrestle men, and win a WCW championship, confronted stereotypes when she came out as bisexual. Her muscular body and defiant skills threatened male opponents and was idolized by girls and perhaps more than a few gay men. Sadly, she died of an overdose in 2016.

On a larger scale, Pratt cites the statistics that show professional wrestlers have a higher and younger death rate than any other athletes. He says, "When you feel like your whole world resides on presenting an unrealistic perception of who you are, that's a colossal weight to carry."

The burley wrestler Mike Parrow discusses his own near-miss in a suicide attempt. He soon after met his boyfriend, Morgan. His career is now thriving as an out wrestler. His manager Dan Drennan says how "he finally became comfortable in his own skin and became the big brooding badass that he is now."

Finn Bálor's 'Wrestling is for Everyone' campaign  

TV tales
Not all comings-out or attempts at inclusion worked. Darren Young, who came out in an impromptu airport interview with TMZ, endured a bit of confusion for being an openly gay man portraying a straight wrestling character. Despite outward attempts to connect with groups like GLAAD, he was eventually dismissed by the WWE.

In a bittersweet moment, Pat Patterson, in WWE's 2014 "Legends House," a celebrity reality show, got to come out after decades of being in the closet. In tears, he mentions his decades-long partner Louis.

Ally Finn Bálor's support for entering a 2018 New Orleans Wrestlemania event with rainbow-shirted supporters could have been a notable highlight, but instead showcased WWE's duplicity.

At the same time as donating a portion of Bálor's rainbow merchandise to LGBTQ nonprofits, Vince McMahon and company made a multi-million-dollar deal with the Saudi General Sports Authority to present matches in a country where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by whipping. The WWE's McMahons have also aligned themselves with Donald Trump for years.

Wrestler EFFE  

New talent
There is a spark of hope toward the film's conclusion, with a focus on younger performers like trans wrestler Nyla Rose, the UK's Charlie Morgan (formerly Lady Penelope), Anthony Bowens, Trish Adora, Brittany Wonder, Ashton Starr, MV Young, Lola Starr, and Sonny Kiss (a death drop diva).

EFFY (Effy Gibbes), an independent wrestler whose 'cub hunk in fishnets' style has gained him notoriety, says, "There's a space that the WWE has let fall aside, and by pushing away the fans, they've given them more options elsewhere." He adds that he would think twice before taking any offers from the corporate brands, because he would lose his individuality.

UK wrestler Charlie Morgan  

Smaller leagues and promotions embrace diversity and defy the corporate culture's domination, not only for and by LGBTQs, but BiPOC wrestlers.

Examples are Billy Dixon's LGBTQ Butch vs Gore pride shows, the AEW (All Elite Wrestling) and the Bay Area's Hoodslam, whose local shows are a must-see.

Whether you're a devoted wrestling fan or just curious, "Out in the Ring" is compelling viewing.

'Out in the Ring,' premieres on Fuse November 15.

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